Oct. 25, 2018 By Nathaly Pesantez
Hundreds poured into LaGuardia Community College last night for the first public meeting of the Sunnyside Yard master planning process.
About 450 people RSVP’d to the event, according to staffers, who registered guest upon guest into the five-station workshop put on by the city’s Economic Development Corporation, the agency leading the project, and Amtrak, which owns a large portion of the yard.
Some waited in line close to an hour after doors opened before finally reaching the main event.
The workshop marks the first of several opportunities that the public will have to provide input during the master planning process, which kicked off this summer and represents a major milestone toward the city’s goal of fully developing over the 180-acre yard.
The master plan is anticipated to be released in just over a year by the Practice for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU), the lead consultant for the project. The plan is supposed to dictate what can be built over the yard over the course of several years, touching on virtually all aspects related to urban planning like parks, schools, transportation, housing, and more.
The plan will also spell out development phases and a timeline for the potential build-out over the yard.
“It’s a key, key priority for the de Blasio administration, and it’s an exercise in dreaming big,” said Carl Rodrigues, senior advisor to Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, who leads the recently formed Sunnyside Yard Steering Committee.
The approximately 35-member steering committee is made up of community leaders, stakeholders, and experts from the seven neighborhoods that surround the yard. The members, many of whom were in attendance last night, are tasked with providing their perspectives on what can and should be built over the yard to the technical team behind the master plan.
The interactive stations at the workshop, led by members of the consultant team and city and Amtrak reps, focused on themes like identifying problems and solutions to existing concerns in western Queens; overall visioning for the yard; and what future workshops on the master planning process should focus on.
By the end of the two-hour event, attendees had filled the multiple boards at the workshop with a flurry of sticky-notes spelling out what they wanted over the yard and more—either in generous detail or blunt bullet points.
“Smart affordable development with considerations to open space and transit system capacity,” one note left on a visioning board reads.
“Nothing—but since the city will do what they want…PLAN!” reads another.
The planning team, however, told the crowd that it is coming into this project with a blank canvas, and that it is committed to collaborative engagement in the form of workshops, site visits, surveys, and more.
“There is no plan yet,” said Vishaan Chakrabarti, founder of PAU. “We are just at the beginning of this process.”
He added that the sheer number of approvals processes, phasing, and more involved in potential development ensures that any future plan for the yard will be done over many years.
“Whatever happens here will be phased over many decades,” Chakrabarti said. “Nothing is going to happen right away.”
Despite the city heavily promoting its interest in community engagement for the process, some attendees the LIC Post spoke to said they are not sure their concerns will fully translate into the potential future plan for the yard.
They recalled recent large-scale projects and rezonings led by the city that were met with opposition by residents who said it’s bad planning, fearing it will lead to displacement, overcrowding, and other problems.
“I want to believe that our city government is finally listening,” said Annabelle Rose M., who has been living in Sunnyside for a year and a half. “At the same time, I’m aware that there’s a track record and a public perception that that doesn’t always happen.”
She said one of her reasons for attending the workshop is her involvement in the Smiling Hogshead Ranch, a community garden just across the street from the yard on Skillman Avenue in Long Island City.
“We are interested in being part of the conversation because we know it’s going to be pretty much right next door,” she said.
The master planning team, she added, has already reached out and started communicating with the group.
And while opposition to developing over the yard was palpable well before the beginning of the master planning process, workshop attendees generally expressed interest in seeing something go over the area.
“It’s one of the most anticipated projects, so I’d like to see where everyone’s mindset is,” said Marc Bucaoto, a 31-year-old lifelong Woodside resident. He’s mostly looking forward to seeing how developing the yard will address issues like affordable housing and parking.
Betty Zhang, a 46-year-old Sunnyside resident for the past 20 years, also said the city needs to develop the yard, and can demonstrate a new level of leadership in doing so. Her ideas include new schools, hospitals, and parks—all devised with modernity in mind.
“The city can be a pioneer,” she said. “This is a space to do it.”
She describes the planning process as a boat that the surrounding community is on.
“We are the passengers,” she said. “We want to vote on the direction.”